New analysis by the EPI shows the scale of ambition needed to ensure the pandemic recovery plan sets children’s lives right, writes Luke Sibieta
For many months, disruption has dominated young lives. Most have missed more than half a year of normal schooling and been starved of childhood experiences. The prime minister has responded with a pledge that no child will be “left behind as a result of the learning they have lost”.
A long-term recovery package is set to be unveiled in a few weeks, but it’s still uncertain whether the government is about to pull out all the stops and deliver a truly ambitious catch-up settlement. So if the PM is to stay true to his word, exactly just how much extra funding would be required?
To answer this, we first have to understand the extent of lost learning and the long-run consequences. EPI’s latest analysis for the DfE shows that even by the first half of the autumn term, pupils were already about three months behind. This is incredibly alarming when you consider that it doesn’t even include the prolonged pre-Christmas disturbance, or the chaotic switch to remote learning in early 2021. There is probably more to come.
And the impacts are likely to extend beyond the academic. There are accelerating mental health problems and a significant risk of disengagement for a small but significant minority.
If lost educational progress alone is not dealt with, our analysis shows that today’s children could be £8,000 to £50,000 poorer as adults over their working lives. Summed up over eight million children, this makes for an eye–watering sum of £60 to £420 billion, which is likely to be an under-estimate of the potential long-run costs.
It’s not just about how much is spent, but what it’s spent on
Such figures can seem overwhelming, but they are not intended as a prediction of inevitable doom and gloom for today’s children. Instead, they should be regarded as a clarion call to today’s policymakers.
There are concrete examples from Argentina and Germany where lost learning has translated into big long-run costs. But there are also examples of policymakers using crises as a catalyst for positive and sustained change to help pupils catch up and more, such as improvements to the New Orleans school system following Hurricane Katrina or the massive cooperative efforts between schools following the Christchurch earthquake in 2011.
After the Second World War – partly thanks to the reforming efforts of Rab Butler – the UK finally implemented a system of universal free secondary schooling and increased the school leaving age, which has been shown to have large positive effects.
The common thread is that education recovery is not a passive thing. It requires sustained focus on ways to improve the quality of provision. So given what we know, how much should the government be spending on it?
Our assessment is that it will take a multi-year package worth about £10 to £15 billion in England – significantly more than the £1.7 billion committed to so far. This is based on the scale of the loss, what we normally spend on education, evidence on the effects of school spending and what international competitors are already doing.
And it’s not just about how much is spent, but what it’s spent on. As we move towards the recovery announcement, EPI will be publishing a specific set of evidence-led and costed proposals with a strong focus on teacher quality and support, mental health and one-to-one interventions.
Of course, schools don’t bear the full responsibility of addressing lost learning and educational inequalities. Extra support in the early years and post-16 must feature in any recovery plans.
We believe such a package will be sufficient to help pupils catch up, but a return to where we were before cannot be the ceiling for ambition. If the recovery package proves effective, it should be sustained to help deal with deeper problems, such as the yawning 18–month disadvantage gap that persisted well before the pandemic.
Getting this right – genuinely tackling lost learning through a properly funded and targeted recovery package – could serve as one of the greatest demonstrations of the long-term value of investing in education.
We must first meet the scale of this crisis. But let’s also use it as a chance to reshape things for the better.